Five Minute Tip: Managing Your Team Meetings

Five minutes are all it takesIn my experience, most people run most meetings really badly. What are the most common pitfalls, and how can you avoid them?

Meetings should always result in something happening. Even if the meeting was a discussion, an exchange of views, there should be an action arising from it -- a good example here would be for someone to produce a summary of the views expressed.

Colleagues should know in advance what the meeting is going to be about. All too often, the Agenda appears at the last minute. You must give people time to prepare, especially if you want to have a genuine discussion about something.

Papers for the meeting should be made available well in advance. I have attended meetings where a 108-page document relating to the meeting was emailed to everyone 25 minutes before the meeting was due to start. That is unacceptable, and simply lays you open to suspicion of not intending to have a genuine discussion.

Someone should take notes in the meeting. As you are unlikely to have a secretary to do that, the fairest thing to do is take it in turns. But note that it is very difficult to take notes and chair a meeting. When it's your turn to take notes, you might consider asking someone else to chair it. That would also have the benefit of giving others a chance to step into your shoes and gain some valuable experience in their own career advancement.

Minutes are meant to be a record, not a transcription. Keep them brief and to the point. And make sure they are distributed within a day or two. The person taking the minutes should always give them to you for your approval before disseminating them to the rest of the team.

Minutes must always include action points, with a named person responsible. Note that the person responsible must be selected in the meeting, not afterwards, and only if they are present and agree -- it could be considered unprofessional to assign a task to someone in their absence, especially if it's a task that nobody else wishes to do.

Meetings should have set start and finish times. Even better, there should be some guidance in the Agenda as to how long each item will take. If these timings turn out to be optimistic, curtail the discussion and put the item(s) high on the next meeting's Agenda.

The meetings should start on time, and finish on time. No waiting for people who haven't arrived: the most important people are the ones who are actually there, and it's unfair to keep them waiting. It's also self-defeating, because they will learn that meetings start later than the time specified, so next time they will arrive late as well, because there is always something that "I just need to do quickly before the meeting."

Meetings should not be so frequent that they end up being held for their own sake -- everybody is too busy for that. Neither should they be so infrequent that there is no opportunity for a team spirit to build up. You'll have to judge this for yourself, but I would suggest that a meeting every two or three weeks is about right. If that is very difficult to fit in, consider a different pattern and structure: say, a full meeting every month, with a ten minute get-together at the end of each two week period in-between -- or an audio or online meeting just to "touch base".

Sometimes it may be impossible for someone to get to the meeting, but that need not be a problem. It's now both possible and easy to hold meetings which include people who are not physically present. Doug Woods, in a comment on my article about special team meetings, made some incisive comments, which I've reproduced here:

It seems to me, and this is hardly an earth-shattering observation, that people cannot always attend a meeting. Maybe this is because of illness, working from home or a different site, or they have a scheduling clash...whatever. Perhaps, this may be more of an issue nowadays with school clusters, federated schools, schools on split sites etc..These people, however, may well have a valuable contribution to make or could benefit from hearing other members' contributions .... else why would you have invited them to the meeting?

It can be important, therefore, that you enable such absentees to be able to make their contribution to the meeting in some other way. Possibly you could ask them to write their contribution beforehand and then have someone read it at the team meeting but I'd suggest that might be a poor substitute for an informed dialogue or discussion. So why not consider audio (telephone) conferencing or video conferencing as a means of allowing absentees to contribute and share in the meeting? Even someone on a train or someone driving could pull into a services [station] and contribute via a video link on their smartphone.

It also occurs to me that while meetings take place between key members of your team, there are other staff who may be affected by decisions or outcomes made at such meetings. Why not video your meetings and/or have a discussion board live during and after the meeting so that these other people can make a contribution and feel that they are included?

I'd also add that you could invite guest speakers to your meeting via Skype or a similar webcam-based solution. If you really wanted to push the boat out you could ask a member of your team who is attending a conference or an exhibition to report in live through their laptop. There also various online meeting applications available, such as Flashmeeting.

Finally, even though they may not have a choice in the matter, the members of your team are giving up valuable time to attend the meeting. Very few people like meetings. Sugar the pill by making sure refreshments are available. If possible, invite a guest speaker in, or ask one of your team to prepare a presentation. In other words, make it a bit different: you might like the sound of your own voice, but others might not!

This is an expanded version of an article originally published on 5th April 2007. Thanks to Doug Woods for his comments.